A T-shirt hurriedly thrown over her green salwar-kameez school uniform, 13-year-old Zahida Manzoor waits her turn to play a round of badminton before school is done for the day. Acutely aware that she will not be able to attend school for about four days next week, she is keen to get a few games this week.
“Me and other girls my age miss school during our monthly period and I miss the game for about a week,” she says.
A student at the Government Girls’ Middle School Razwan, Zahida promises to return to school even if she misses a few days. But last year, for more than 300 girls from the district’s 1,200 schools, classes ended when menstruation began. And this is what Syed Sehrish Asgar, Kashmir’s only woman Deputy Commissioner, aims to change.
Starting Monday, all higher secondary girls’ schools and colleges of Budgam district, adjoining Srinagar, will have sanitary napkin dispensers and incinerators installed. The district administration’s efforts are focused on bringing girls who have dropped out for concerns of personal hygiene back to school and prevent their absence from classrooms. The current dropout rate is close to 20 per cent according to Asgar.
A 2013-batch IAS officer, Asgar (33) says that by opening up the conversation about menstrual hygiene, she also hopes to advance the understanding that “one does not become a lesser human being or feel the need to hide from public view or make life-altering compromises for something that’s entirely natural and normal”.
With no separate budget allocations for such projects, she managed funds from the state’s rural development department as well as assistance from the Airports Authority of India’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) contribution.
“All the incinerators have been procured and the sanitary napkins are being sourced through a tendering process. These units will be placed at 106 high and higher secondary schools, five degree colleges and one ITI in the district,” Asgar told The Indian Express. Apart from these, dispensers will also be placed at the DC’s office as well as the Srinagar international airport that falls in the district.
Also essential to bring about this change are functional toilets to give young girls the privacy they need to use the facilities being introduced. When she took over as DC in June 2018, she said toilets in several schools were broken, which deterred students from coming to school.
At Razwan, Zahida and her friends said that they run home during the lunch break to use the bathroom and come back for class. The restrooms at the school are broken and have no water supply.
These and other facilities in the Budgam’s schools are being repaired and made functional, says Asgar. This is already making the difference in school attendance such as the middle school in Jawalapora.
Headmaster Mohammad Yousuf says that a school with roughly 150 students had no toilets and “students who would go home during breaks would often not come back. In case of girls, it was more difficult since we could not provide the right environment for adolescent girls”. He says things are looking up since the broken toilet in their school was repaired even as construction of new ones remains a priority.
Outside the school, Himu Gulzar, in her white uniform and headscarf, shies away from discussing her difficulties but admits that if she had the option of getting sanitary napkins in school, it would save her the backlog in classwork.
Electrifying all schools is also on the administration’s agenda. Asgar says, “We have to try to create a society where women are concerned about their health and hygiene and do not feel ashamed of it. It’s their right to live with dignity, and the stigma around menstruation needs to be addressed. We need structures in our public spaces where they can feel comfortable.”